Looking back on my four years as an undergraduate, I’m reminded of all the beautiful friends I met, the wonderful places I was lucky enough to go and the life-changing experiences I was able to have.
College is truly a time for individuals to grow, not only academically and professionally, but on an important personal level as well. As with all matters of life however, there is certainly a flux and flow of the good and the not so good.
Venturing into any unknown situation is intimidating. If you’re LGBT and about to start college, here are some suggestions from a few of us who were just there.
For starters, be sure to find a campus that you’re going to enjoy. A sense of belonging should be high on your college priority list. You do not want to enroll in a campus and then discover that parts of your identity are not welcomed or even celebrated. In this sense, it is perfectly OK to be selfish. Find a campus that you enjoy as much as it enjoys you. As a great resource, check out Campus Pride’s National Listing of LGBTQ-friendly colleges and universities at campusprideindex.org.
When to come out? If you do not feel that it’s the right time for you to come out during college, know that it’s your decision to make. Everyone has his or her own story and own time to tell it. Never feel pressured to come out. Do it at your own pace. Period.
“Honestly, I wish I had been told that I do not have to be out if I do not want to,” says Mariam, a 2015 graduate of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “There was this huge emphasis on my campus for ‘Coming Out Day’ and it’s not always safe to.“
The only person capable enough to decide how many things you can take on in college is yourself. Do not stretch yourself too thin, too fast. Remember that you have four or more years to engage in everything you want to engage in. Take your time. Remember to balance your academic as well as your self care as priorities.
“Know your limits,” says Matthew, a 2015 Illinois State University graduate. “I always felt on the outside as a queer individual growing up, so when college came around I tried including myself in everything I could get my hands on. Pick a few things you love and rock out on them.”
On a similar note, do not forget that you are allowed to say “no.” Many people fall into a pattern of saying yes to everything that comes their way. This is a quick way to become overworked and even out of tune with yourself. Your college years are the time to experiment and get involved with as much as you can. However, if you’re not willing or able to, there’s a simple, one-word solution — no.
Sex: let’s get real. How honest would an article about college life be if it did not involve anything regarding sex? The answer: not that honest. Sex isn’t a priority for everyone and that’s perfectly fine. However, if you’re having sex then make sure you and your partner(s) are safe and comfortable. In terms of safe sex, many colleges and universities have departments or programs that provide safe-sex resources such as condoms (male and female), dental dams, lubrication, etc. In terms of comfortable sex, make sure that all parties in the encounter give their clear consent. Do not put yourself or someone else in a position that they do not feel ready for. Communication is key. Sex is great, but we have to be able to talk about it first.
Making healthy choices. LGBTQ college students face many challenges that impact their health and well-being on campus. Whether alcohol/substance use or healthy body image issues, there are specific ways these health concerns affect LGBTQ youth differently. Educate yourself and your campus community on the issues related to LGBTQ health and wellness by checking out Campus Pride’s Health and Wellness resources at CampusPride.org/resources
Fabulous, of course. Remember that while you may have amazing circles of support on your campus, parts of the world are still catching up to your fabulousness. When you’re searching for internships or post-graduate positions, do your research. Make sure you find an organization or company that is going to make you feel safe and welcome for all your identities.
“I wish that someone had given me advice on how and where to find employers and geographical locations that are LGBTQ-friendly,” Mariam says. “So looking for an after graduation-job would have been much easier, ya know? I wish that was something career offices made available on the regular: companies that are specifically LGBTQ-friendly.”
Take advantage of the resources your campus has to offer. Many universities have programs designed to help advance the wellness of students. Whether it be through a Career Center, Counseling Services, a Student Involvement Center, an Office of Diversity Advocacy, or even the Campus Recreation Center. Most of the services these departments will provide are of no cost to students. You already paid for much of these resources in your tuition, so take advantage of them.
“I wish someone would have prepped me for what the world feels like when you’re no longer directly protected by the resources and support of a university that provides for LGBTQ students,” says Roze, a University of Missouri-Kansas 2014 graduate.
Making friends outside your circle. Meet up and make friends with people from all walks of life. In doing so, you will be exposed to a rainbow of different ways to view and engage with the world. As this might be a scary thought at first, know that diversifying your experiences will only further your growth as a young adult. As LGBTQ individuals, it’s important to remember intersectionality and that those who may support us also need support in return.
“One thing no one told me is that it’s really easy to get involved in queer/trans issues even if you do not work for a QT organization,” says Kayla, a 2014 graduate of Texas A&M University. “There are all types of community organizations in big cities, college towns, medium-sized cities, etc., and they’re always looking for people. Also, if you’re looking to meet other QT folks, look for a meetup group (meetup.com) or create one if there’s not one in your area.”
Look for role models and mentors. In your search for support and friends, also aim your sights on finding a personal role model or mentor or even multiple. Sometimes it is easier for someone to know what they want in life by observing how others have engaged with the world. Mentors or role models are an incredible source of information and often much more experience in areas you may be interested in yourself.
“It is important to find a mentor,” says Matthew, a 2015 Illinois State University graduate. “I was so, so lucky to have many amazing mentors in college. Queer individuals should always have someone to ask questions of, lean on and be challenged by for growth.”
Selfie care: This is about more than taking time to snap a photo. One of the most important things to remember, not only in college but in all stages of your life, is self care. College can be incredibly busy and stressful at times. Remember that it is OK for you to take a step back and spend time on yourself if you need to. Constructive self-care time will better allow you to take on responsibilities as a student.
“Knowing what I know now about being a queer college student with one degree under my belt, I make a point of telling my students now that they are not alone, that their feelings are valid, and that they are already defying odds by being in college,” Roze says. “So if self care takes precedent over an assignment sometimes, there are always ways to improve your grade, but you have to improve yourself first.”
Why am I here? Never forget the reason you’re in higher education. Have goals and remember that you are there to graduate and receive an education. Sure, it’s easy to doze off and daydream during a long lecture. But what good are you doing yourself if you’re not paying attention to the material? Not only is it a waste of your money, but it is also a waste of your time and growth as a future activist.
“Education is a privilege and access to the language of theory is not something most people have,” says Megan, a 2015 graduate of Metropolitan State College of Denver. “If you cannot back up your theory with actions then what you are left with is a language without meaning. It’s not easy to reframe the way I talk about power and identity outside of academic circles, but I have realized that inaccessible language is a barrier to inclusive social justice.”
With these tools in your back pocket, my hope is that you’re ready to tackle higher education head on. There’s no such thing as too much advice, so don’t stop with this article. Be sure to reach out to those you may know who have experienced higher education for more tips and tools. Always remain proactive, get involved, but to also take time for yourself. Stay fine, fresh and fierce and enjoy every moment you can. These are the glory days.
Tyler Eilts is an alumnus of Illinois State University, where he is also seeking his master’s degree in interpersonal communication and women’s and gender studies. He is a 2015 summer fellow for Campus Pride.